FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Courtney Whitson tied her career highs of 22 points and six 3-pointers and Middle Tennessee held on to beat Rice 68-65 on Saturday night in the championship game on the Conference USA Tournament.
The Blue Raiders earned their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2016.
Anastasia Hayes had 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds for Middle Tennessee (17-7).
Deja Cage — who had made just one of her last 17 from behind the arc — hit a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired with 1:12 to play to end a 7-0 run by Rice’s Nancy Mulkey and make it 66-60. Lauren Schwartz answered with a 3 just 11 seconds later and Jasmine Smith made a layup with 13 seconds to play to make it a one-point game. Rellah Boothe made 1-of-2 free throws for Middle Tennessee to make it 67-65 with nine seconds remaining and then stole a pass before Alexis Whittington made a foul shot to cap the scoring.
Mulkey had 21 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks for Rice (19-3). Smith added 13 points and 10 boards.
Mulkey — one of three players (Tulane’s Janell Burse and TCU’s Sandora Irvin) to win C-USA defensive player of the year in back-to-back-to-back years — scored the first six points of the fourth quarter to give the Owls a 51-49 lead, their first since 6-5. Middle Tennessee scored 14 of the next 16 points to take a 10-point lead when Whitson made a layup with 4:31 to go.
Middle Tennessee, which went into the game averaging 9.1 made 3-pointers (No. 13 nationally), made 12 3s. The Owls shot 26% (5 of 19) from behind the arc.
It was a rematch of the league’s last title game when Rice topped Middle Tennessee 69-54 in 2019. The 2020 Conference USA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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